‹ 1984 Flag of the United States 1992 ›
United States presidential election, 1988
November 8, 1988
154px George H. W. Bush, President of the United States, 1989 official portrait
Nominee Joe Biden George H. W. Bush
Party Democratic Republican
Home state Delaware Texas
Running mate Al Gore Dan Quayle
Electoral vote 537 1
States carried 50+D.C. 0+ME-02
Popular vote 47,252,654 42,536,458
Percentage 52.1% 46.9%
Presidential election results map. Blue denotes states won by Biden/Gore Red denotes those won by Bush/Quayle,
President before election
Ronald Reagan
Republican Party (United States)
Elected President
Joe Biden
Democratic Party (United States)

The United States presidential election of 1988 featured an open primary for both major parties. Ronald Reagan, the incumbent President, was vacating the position after serving the maximum two terms allowed by the Twenty-second Amendment. Reagan's Vice President, George H. W. Bush, won the Republican nomination, while the Democrats nominated Joe Biden, a Senator from Delaware. Bush attempted to capitalized on Reagan's popularity while Biden criticized Bush for "losing touch with real Americans", and capitalizing on Biden's perceived connection to middle class and poor Americans.

Democratic Party Candidates

  • Senator Joe Biden of Delaware
  • Senator Al Gore of Tennessee
  • Representative Dick Gephardt of Missouri
  • Senator Paul Simon of Illinois
  • Former Senator Gary Hart of Colorado
  • Governor Bruce Babbitt of Arizona
  • Reverend Jesse Jackson of Illinois
  • Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts

Having been badly defeated in the 1984 presidential election, the Democrats were eager to find a new approach to win the presidency. They felt more optimistic this time due to the continuing Iran Contra scandal plus the large gains in the 1986 mid-term election which resulted in the Democrats taking back control of the Senate after six years of Republican rule.

In early 1987, Senator Gary Hart was the clear frontrunner in the field, Hart had put in a strong showing in the 1984 presidential election, and had refined his campaign in the intervening years.

However, questions of extramarital affairs dogged the charismatic candidate. One of the great myths is that Senator Hart challenged the media to 'put a tail' on him. In actuality, the Miami Herald had received an anonymous tip from a friend of Donna Rice that Rice was involved with Hart. It was only after Hart had been discovered that the Herald reporters found Hart's quote in a copy of The New York Times Magazine. On May 8, 1987, a week after the Donna Rice story broke, Hart dropped out of the race. In December 1987, Hart returned to the race. However, the damage had been done.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts had been considered a potential candidate, but he ruled himself out of the 1988 campaign in the fall of 1985. Two other politicians mentioned as possible candidates, both from Arkansas, didn't join the race: Senator Dale Bumpers and Governor Bill Clinton.

In late 1987, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, who had been gaining support and was starting to lead in some straw polls due to his "Massachusetts Miracle" campaign, started to drop in polls due to his views on prison furloughs and news stories regarding Willie Horton became public.

Civil Rights activist Rev. Jesse Jackson, who was initially polling strong in some southern states, saw his numbers drop when he came to the defence of Dukakis on the Willie Horton issue.

Senator Joe Biden of Delaware's campaign took advantage of the fumbles, portraying Biden as tough on crime, but also making a strong appeal to young and rural voters by showing himself as a common guy, and promising to represent all Americans.

Democratic Primaries

In Iowa Dick Gephardt won strongly, Paul Simon came in second and Michael Dukakis managed an unexpectedly strong third.

The Dukakis camp tried to paint it as a comeback and started running negative ads against Gephardt.

In New Hampshire there was an unexpected turn, Joe Biden won the New Hampshire primary. This was mainly accredited to Dukakis' attacks on Gephardt, Gephardt still managed to come in a close second. Simon finished third, Gore in fourth and Dukakis in a dismal fifth.

After that the tide turned strongly for Biden who then won strong victories in the northern states and ultimately won 32 states. Al Gore managed to win 11 and come in second while Jesse Jackson won four states, coming in third.

Democratic Convention

The 1988 Democratic National Convention was held in Atlanta, Georgia from July 18–21. In his first major national speech, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton placed Biden's name in nomination. The speech lasted for so long that some delegates began booing to get him to finish.

The most memorable speech given at the Democratic Convention was by Texas State Treasurer Ann Richards, who two years later was elected the Governor of Texas. Richards uttered the famous line: "Poor George, he can't help it, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth."

Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy's remarks contained the famous iteration "Where was George?", which became a popular slogan of the campaign.

Al Gore was selected as Biden's Vice-Presidential Candidate. Gore, who was also Biden's closest competition in the primaries, was chosen main due to his youth (Gore was 40 at the time) and in hopes Gore would help Biden carry a few southern states.

At the Democratic National Convention Biden gave a speech to appeal to all America:

"We all know- or at least we are told continually- that we are a divided people. And we know there's a degree of truth in it. We have too often allowed our differences to prevail among us. We have too often allowed ambitious men to play off those differences for political gain. We have too often retreated behind our differences when no one really tried to lead us beyond them. But all our differences hardly measure up to the values we all hold in common ... I am running for President because ... I want to make the system work again, and I am convinced that is what all Americans really want."

'Integrity' became one of the slogans chosen for Biden's campaign, based on the speech at the convention. Biden left the campaign with a large 17 point lead over Bush in the polls.

Republican Party Candidates

  • Senate Minority Leader and 1976 vice-presidential nominee Bob Dole of Kansas
  • Vice-President George H.W. Bush of Texas
  • Former Governor Pierre S. du Pont, IV of Delaware
  • RNHA chairman Ben Fernandez of California
  • Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig
  • Representative Jack Kemp of New York
  • Former Senator Paul Laxalt of Nevada
  • Televangelist Pat Robertson of Virginia
  • Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld of Illinois
  • Former Governor Harold E. Stassen of Minnesota

Bush unexpectedly came in third in the Iowa caucus, which he had won in 1980, behind Dole and Robertson. Dole was also leading in the polls of the New Hampshire primary, and the Bush camp responded by running television commercials portraying Dole as a tax raiser, while Governor John H. Sununu campaigned for Bush. Dole did nothing to counter these ads and Bush won, thereby gaining crucial momentum, or what he called "Big Mo". Dole was bitter about his defeat in New Hampshire, going on TV to tell Bush to "stop lying about my record."

Once the multiple-state primaries such as Super Tuesday began, Bush's organizational strength and fund raising lead were impossible for the other candidates to match, and the nomination was his.

Republican National Convention

The 1988 National Convention of the Republican Party of the United States was held in the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans, Louisiana from August 15 to August 18, 1988. It was the second time that a major party held its conclave in one of the five states known as the Deep South, coming on the heels of the 1988 Democratic National Convention, which was held in Atlanta, Georgia.

The convention nominated Vice President George H. W. Bush for President, as expected. The second spot on the ticket was not publicly known before the convention; Bush chose James Danforth "Dan" Quayle, U.S. Senator of Indiana, as his vice-presidential running mate. The revelation of Quayle's selection as running mate did not come until the second day of the convention, when NBC News broke the story.

The convention is perhaps best known for Bush's "thousand points of light" speech accepting the nomination. Written by Peggy Noonan, it included the "read my lips: no new taxes" pledge that was the most popular sound bite coming out of the convention. The successful speech gave him a "bounce" that erased Biden's original lead in the polls.

General election


Joe Biden had a strong voting record and was known to cross party lines and work with Republicans on important bills. This made it hard for the Republicans to develop an attack strategy. The public's perceptions that Biden was a "common man", and thus could better represent average Americans than the wealthy, Yale educated George H.W. Bush.

Despite an initial strong lead in the polls due to his "no new taxes" speech, Bush suddenly found himself of the defensive. The Bush campaign attempted many different tactics to show Bush was in touch with average Americans.

One of the attempts included showing Bush cooking at a public BBQ, in a apron that read "Kiss the cook" and a cooks hat. This proved to be a public relations disaster, Bush came off looking totally out of place and uncomfortable which only amplified the belief that Bush was out of touch with average Americans. This became known as the "BBQ Incident", Biden campaign ran an ad that show clips of the event with the tag line "Send Bush back to the grills, vote Biden - Gore".

Bush's campaign then tried to point to the success of the Reagan campaign and Bush's promises of "a kinder gentler Reaganism".

The Biden campaign stuck with the "Where was Bush?" line and attempted to connect Bush with Iran - Contra.

Things did not improve for Bush when the Presidential Debates started. Bush and Biden held their own through out most of the debates, but when the question turned to how both relation to the average American Biden gave a passionate speech over starting off with near nothing and working to the top, Biden also went to tears when talking about the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter.

Bush had a hard time answering the question when following Biden, this reinforced the idea that Bush was out of touch.

The Vice-Presidential Debate also did damage to the Bush Campaign. Dan Quayle was clearly outmatched by Al Gore, who was seen by as the clear winner of the debate. This caused a call from the right for Bush to dump Quayle from the ticket, but the Campaign Advisers Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes warned Bush that doing so would make him look indecisive, doing far more damage to the campaign.

The Biden campaign started airing commercials showing Quayle's poor debate performance, with the tagline "Dan Quayle: One heartbeat away".

A number of false rumors were reported in the media about Biden, including the claim by Idaho Republican Senator Steve Symms that Biden's wife Jill had a criminal record, as well as the claim that Biden himself had been treated for a mental illness. Lee Atwater later had to resign from the Bush campaign after the rumors were traced back to him. Ultimately, this did much more damage to Bush than Biden.


The election on November 8, 1988 was a majority for Biden in the popular vote and a lopsided majority in the Electoral College.

Biden managed to do what no Democratic Candidate since Lyndon Johnson had done- win in a landslide.

This is attributed to Biden's "common man" campaign, and Bush's failures to come up with any response to it. The Bush BBQ incident went down as one of the worst campaign moves ever, and was the ultimate humiliation to Bush. Despite Americans happiness with the Reagan Administration, Biden was able to disassociate Bush from the Reagan success.

The selection of Dan Quayle as Bush's VP was also seen as a large mistake. Quayle was seen as dumb by the public, and the chance of him becoming president was not something the public wanted to risk. Quayle was not able to secure his home state of Indiana for Bush.